Noise Pollution

"Imagine a lake," reads the website of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) , "filled with semi-tractor-trailer trucks, magically skimming across the water.

"Remarkably, such a lake would be quieter than if it was filled with motorized boats. Our lakes are governed by out of date, unenforceable regulations so lax that no state has boat noise limits lower than federal limits for tractor-trailer trucks (80 decibels at 50 feet). We are literally turning our lakes into the New Jersey Turnpike."

The NPC is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to, among other things, raise awareness about noise pollution, strengthen noise-related laws and regulations, and "establish networks among environmental, professional, medical, governmental, and activist groups working on noise pollution issues."

It's not just personal watercraft that trouble the NPC. It's also airports. And lawnmowers. "For the last 50 years," reads the website, "Americans have been moving to the suburbs and rural areas, in part to escape the noise of urban and industrial areas. Unfortunately, they brought the industrial soundscape with them. The source of much of the urban and industrial background noise, the internal combustion engine, is quickly becoming the source of the background noise in suburban and rural areas. Even areas remote from highways cannot escape the din of lawn equipment.

"Just as Americans settle onto their porch or deck for a peaceful end to a busy day, a chorus of lawnmowers, weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers drown out the sound of birds."

Amen. And it isn't just birds that get drowned out. It's also the sound of music in our listening rooms. The NPC should have included audiophiles in their list of groups "working on noise pollution issues." Anyway, sign me up.

Many people seem to be getting the message, finally, that listening-room acoustics make a big difference. People who are willing—eager, even—to spend tens of thousands of dollars on fancy electronics, or thousands on interconnects, continue to skimp on the biggest single impediment to high-fidelity music reproduction: lousy room acoustics. And though acoustic treatments may take a toll in terms of pure appearance—my wife objects to the thick down comforters hanging from the walls of my listening room, but she'll get used to it—improving the acoustics of a room of small to medium size is one of audiodom's cheapest tweaks. Even if you use fancier materials than my old, ragged, feather-shedding comforters, the bang for the buck is unrivaled.

As I said, more and more people seem to be getting this message. Across America, room acoustics are getting fixed. So let's assume you've treated your room and mostly eliminated those harsh reflections and resolution-smearing low-frequency standing waves. Treating a room to minimize reflected sound is one thing; sealing out unwanted outside noise is another. Soundproofing a room is difficult and expensive...and once you've done it, if you live in an apartment or condo, there's still the upstairs neighbors: eliminating the bump-bump-bump of high heels crossing a wooden floor above is pretty much impossible. And even if you could afford to seal out every bit of noise from the neighbor's lawnmower, or the jet-skis and racing boats at the lake house, or the airplane flying overhead...who'd want to? I like my windows.

I live in the country, in a valley, in a house built into a hillside. I have no neighbors, unless you count the foxes, the chipmunks, and the turkeys. It's an ideal situation for an audiophile. Even in the middle of the day, I hardly ever hear a human sound that wasn't made by me, a member of my family, or someone I've invited over. I live in Maine, and the nights are glorious; even after the warmest days, a cool breeze blows through. So most evenings this time of year I throw open the windows, even if it does disturb the room's carefully manicured (pedicured?) bass response, and let in the breeze and the sounds of nature.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of experiencing the listening room of a prominent manufacturer of high-end audio cables. It was the kind of experience that audio journalists have all the time, but for me, an audio rookie, it was special. Looking around the room, I noticed several hundred thousand dollars' worth of electronics. The walls were of double thickness and rendered anechoic by extensive sound treatments; the structure was acoustically suspended on something like a giant high-end turntable shelf; and the electronics had their own dedicated, ultraclean, 40-amp power source. In order to minimize stray electromagnetic radiation, the company had selected low-voltage DC lighting. But when the lights were dimmed and those little fixtures began to cool, they snapped and popped like pine twigs on a hot fire.

The world is full of noise. What's an audiophile to do?

Two nights ago I was listening to a Beethoven string quartet when a cricket started bowing his own little tune right beneath my window; I say "little" tune because the insect was, in fact, diminutive, but that noise made the Takács Quartet's rendition of Op.59 No.2 sound like something George Crumb might have written.

I tried to pretend it didn't matter, but it did: that little bugger was loud. So after a few minutes I went outside and stood, perfectly still, in my underwear, in my front yard, in the middle of the night, for about five minutes—until the cricket started bowing again. When he started to play, I used my well-honed sensitivity to subtle spatial cues to pinpoint his exact location. Then I dropped a brick on his head.

We do what we must.